climate change energy politics

Climate change at the wellhead and the tailpipe

Climate change is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, but our policies to deal with it always begin with reducing CO2. It becomes about the end product, about the gas – not the source of the gas.

It’s an observation George Marshall explores in his book Don’t Even Think About It, which I reviewed last week. He refers to the ‘wellhead’ and the ‘tailpipe’. The wellhead is the exploration and production of fossil fuels. The tailpipe is the point at which they are burned and released into the atmosphere. Marshall suggests that “the focus on tailpipe gas and disregard for wellhead fuels has been the single most important factor in all government and policy framings.”

I agree, and I suspect that prising apart emissions from their source is one of the main reasons why climate negotiations haven’t got anywhere. The scientists meet and make their plans, but governments continue to subsidize fossil fuels, everybody continues to drive, and the markets still applaud the massive profits of the oil companies. There is lots of earnest talk about reducing emissions, but ultimately these are a symptom. To get to the root of the issue, international negotiations ought to be talking about oil, gas and coal.

From his investigations, including asking former IPCC chair Sir John Houghton, Marshall concludes that the tailpipe vs wellhead discussion just never took place. Responses to climate change were shaped by scientists, and their remit was the atmosphere and its composition. “Scientists categorized climate change as a tailpipe issue because production was considered a political issue that was outside of their domain” says Marshall. The business community wasn’t going to raise it, and governments certainly didn’t want to take on the oil giants, so this was a convenient omission.

After a lot of wasted effort, that may be beginning to change. The markets are becoming aware of the risks to fossil fuels, especially as renewable energy gets cheaper. The Keystone XL debate in the US has dramatically highlighted the role of fossil fuels. The divestment campaign quite deliberately puts the spotlight on the legitimacy of profiting from activities that cause climate change.

Perhaps we’re re-balancing a little, and about time. We can talk about emissions targets and carbon trading, but they’re all one step removed from the most obvious problem. As George Monbiot regularly says, the most effective climate policy is to leave fossil fuels in the ground.


  1. That’s a very good point. Mostly I agree, but a sizable part of climate change is about deforestation, and burping cattle, so I can see the logic of not immediately jumping to fossil fuel extraction, even though that’s the lion’s share of it.

    1. That’s true, there’s a fifth to a quarter of climate change that isn’t fossil fuel related. You could completely eliminate fossil fuels and still have a problem.

      We struggle with those other things too, interestingly. We can all agree that deforestation is a bad thing, for example, but are reluctant to make policy suggestions that aim to curb paper consumption. It’s always easier to talk abstract and scientific terms than to challenge people’s lifestyle choices.

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